Interview by Sandra Arnold
Thank you for agreeing to do this interview Nod. You are a prolific writer of flash fiction with work published in a wide variety of international journals and anthologies as well as winning and being shortlisted in competitions. How did it all start? What drew you to the short form?
Thank you for the interview, Sandra. It’s a pleasure to join other authors featured on the TSS site.
I attended the Hagley Writers’ Institute (HWI) in Christchurch, New Zealand in 2012. The well-respected flash fiction writer Frankie McMillan was a tutor there. She encouraged students to enter the inaugural NZ National Flash Fiction Day competition. HWI ran its own contest and organised for us to read in public.
I enjoy reading short fiction, so I was drawn to writing in a condensed form too. The poetic element of flash fiction adds depth that might not be found in work that follows a fuller narrative arc. Short pieces can be emotionally charged despite the paucity of words.
Leaving space for the reader’s own response is important when crafting a piece of flash. Some things are left unsaid. The fun is in leading the reader to a destination. It may not be the same as yours, but it needs to be satisfying for them.
You also work as an editor for the New Zealand-based flash fiction journal, Flash Frontier. What do you look for as an editor and has this influenced the way you have developed your own work?
I was associate editor for Flash Frontier: an Adventure in Short Fiction for two years until 2017, and have recently guest edited. I look for work that transports the reader to a world the characters inhabit. I want to feel what they feel, taste what they taste, die a little when they do. Careful attention to rhythm and word pattern making also makes a story stand out.
I am committed to supporting writers as they learn, but often find I learn a lot from contributors. Editors have a responsibility to choose wisely and fairly. The task hones your critical eye, which in turn can improve the structure of your own work.
Seeing what others produce helps you keep a finger on the pulse, to know what is over-represented, so you can produce something fresh. Editors are excited by something new, as well as tight language or exquisite figurative devices.
The process of selection allows you to see how an individual piece sits amongst others, and whether the author has submitted writing that is a good fit for the publication, a useful skill to have.
You were born in the UK to Indian parents and came to live in New Zealand as an adult. Do you draw on these different cultural influences in your writing?
Very much so. I scavenge my Bengali upbringing for ideas, and enter the minds of Yorkshire folk I lived amongst to develop characters’ voices. Current technology means surfing on Google earth allows an author to set stories in locations they have never visited. However, unless you have lived it yourself, it’s harder to grasp the nuances of a culture, the mores and attitudes that have passed through generations, the conflict that might arise from carrying those values through to a more cosmopolitan environment.
My novella-in-flash, ‘The Crazed Wind’, (Truth Serum Press, July 2018) could be described as ‘memoiresque’. Though I am not the protagonist, like me, the narrator is affected by being ‘from India before birth’. She has felt the paradox of a connection, yet been a foreigner in her ancestral land. She has experienced the frustration women encounter, being judged differently from men. I have given her my memories, my ancestors, my dysfunctional interactions. I have shared with her my hope.
As well as flash fiction you have also had short stories published and have written novels. Which form are you most drawn to? Does one influence the other?
Today, it’s the novel. Ask me tomorrow, and you’ll get a different answer.
At HWI, we had to select a genre for our portfolio submissions. I struggled to decide between short story, novel or poetry. I enjoy many styles of writing, though I have yet to create a decent play or script. Being aware of the different requirements for each reinforces what is needed for what you are working on. For example, I build on characters’ back-story in more depth in novels. The reader sees more of it. Whereas in flash fiction, I might be the only person who knows that a character is scared of spiders, thunderstorms or rejection, though it still affects the way they conduct themselves.
Currently, I am halfway through my fourth novel, ‘Echo Valley’, and having the third, ‘Paper Prison’ assessed through the New Zealand Society of Authors complete manuscript assessment scheme. Number two, ‘The Iris Tattoo’ has completed the rounds of being sent out to publishers and agents, and has gone to live in that special place in hell for dead novels. But I never waste anything. ‘Tattoo’ is being dissected and used for short stories. The amount of re-writing and trimming required to convert these scenes or chapters to short form illustrates well how a different approach is required. My critique partner, Eileen Merriman (interviewed on TSS here), frequently works the other way, and her short stories evolve too when they grow into novels.
The popularity of flash fiction has risen dramatically since the 1980s and every year there are more outlets for the work. Do you think there might be a risk of over-saturation or is this increase a response to reader demand? If so, what has fuelled that demand in your opinion?
I’m glad you can verify flash fiction has become more prolific. It certainly has felt that way over the last six years, but I can’t quote any statistics to back up my perception. It seems many American universities in particular are starting their own on-line publications. An individual reader will read a smaller percentage if there’s more around, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that each of those publications helps develop individuals as better writers. I don’t think the world can have too many good writers.
With more publications appearing, the role of ‘best of’ anthologies such as ‘The Best Small Fictions’ and ‘The Pushcart Prize’ becomes more important.
It has been said that our shortened attention spans linked with increased use of social media has gone hand on hand with the rising popularity of short short stories. I imagine the correlation between the two would be easier to measure than establishing whether one had caused the other. I don’t believe people are reading flash fiction instead of longer forms. Perhaps having access to a smart phone when people are stuck in queues means they can dip into on-line flash publications more readily. I don’t know whether this explains the increased demand. I prefer to read flash at my leisure on a laptop at home, or in a printed format.
What may have added a few drops of petrol on the fire of demand is the sense of community amongst flash fiction writers. Facebook groups such as ‘International Flash Fiction Network’ and ‘Flash Fiction Lovers’, as well as Twitter, have played host to a very inclusive international group, where new writers are encouraged, and established ones appreciated. We read and comment on each other’s work. It’s a good place to find new publications to submit work, so the newer zines and magazines may be propagated this way.
Some people believe that because of its brevity, flash fiction must be easy to write. Do you agree with this? How do you see the form evolving?
It is easier in the sense that it is a less daunting prospect for a new writer than a novel. However, the effort per sentence is far greater, perhaps ten times as hard if you want to put a figure on it. Writers usually need to remove many words after the first draft. When the piece is new, it’s hard to see what needs to be omitted. Flash often benefits from a slow fermentation and maturation process.
An example of how the form is evolving is the increasing popularity of the novella-in-flash. Bath Flash Fiction’s novella-in-flash is running into its third year. Collections with a strong unifying theme have become more popular and ultimately evolved into publications where the reader dips into different parts of the characters’ lives to put together the whole concept, whilst each piece must stand alone with all the punchiness of a complete story.
Are there any flash fiction writers and publications you particularly admire?
They are many and varied. As the genre grows, the choices increase. In a recent TSS interview, Ingrid Jendrzejewski adapted this question to focus on writers she had recently read and enjoyed. I might cheat and take a similar approach, for fear of omission. I’m quoting work that is linked in some way:
An example of how a new idea is the micro Ingrid herself wrote in 2016, which consists of one word (with a somewhat longer title).
Ingrid’s novella-in-flash features in the first Bath flash fiction novella-in-flash anthology, ‘How to Make a Window Snake’. The eponymous story by Charmaine Wilkerson has recently won the novella category at the Saboteur awards. (https://bathflashfictionaward.com/2018/05/how-to-make-a-window-snake-wins-at-the-saboteur-awards-2018/) These stories immerse the reader into the world of a family cleaved by tragedy.
Meg Pokrass (TSS Interview) judged the competition. Her flash collection ‘Cellulose Pajamas’ includes tiny pieces of loveliness that are best savoured one at a time, rather than binge consumed. It is flash fiction at its best, though it is hard to define what makes these stories linger.
Meg founded the site ‘New Flash Fiction Review’, where we find gems such as Nancy Stohlman’s ‘Tiny House’. This story combines the surreal with a subtext about the perilous state of the world.
Nancy hosts the annual flash nano event on Facebook, where people write a story a day to prompts she provides through the month of November. She is also an administrator on the ‘Flash Fiction Lovers’ website. These are environments where I interact with or ‘meet’ many flash writers on-line, whose work I admire. These include Paul Beckman (TSS interview), Jayne Martin, Sudha Balogopal, Lynn Mundell, Jan Elman Stout, Claire Polders and many others.
As far as publications go, I try to keep up with what’s happening in Flash Frontier, an Adventure in Short Fiction, and read pieces in a wide range of sites as pieces are shared on the writer groups I have mentioned. Smokelong Quarterly, Spelk, Fictive Dream and Connotation Press are good.
Do you have any new writing projects on the go at present?
I am halfway through a contemporary novel called ‘Echo Valley’ that is set in Christchurch. This examines the disturbing relationship between two brothers, one of them a missing person.
Matt Potter at Truth Serum Press is putting the finishing touches on the novella-in-flash ‘The Crazed Wind’. This started as ‘homework’ for an on-line course with Nancy Stohlman on compiling a collection. The stories take place against the backdrop of the Partition of India in the 1940s.
What advice would you give to new writers wanting to write flash fiction?
Use prompts if you need ideas.
Don’t try to say everything that needs to be said, or include every character that may inhabit your initial idea for the piece.
Read high quality flash fiction, such as ‘Best Small Fictions’ collections to gain a feel for the genre.
Seek good critique. Find a group where you can offer mutual feedback. Better still, a dedicated critique partner. I am very fortunate that Auckland writer Eileen Merriman looks over all my work.
Above all enjoy yourself.
Thank you Nod.
Nod Ghosh graduated from the Hagley Writers’ Institute in Christchurch, New Zealand in 2014, and has had work published in NZ publications, Landfall, JAAM, and Takahē, as well as in numerous international sites. Awards include placing in the North & South short story competition 2016 and 2018, the Alternative Bindings/ Wallace Arts Trust short story competition 2016 and 2018, the June 2017 Bath Flash Fiction Award and the NZ National Flash Fiction Day competition 2016. The novella-in-flash, The Crazed Wind, is published by Truth Serum Press, (July 2018). The novel Paper Prison has been selected by the New Zealand Society of Authors complete MS scheme. It examines the world of a woman with a marked disability. A fourth novel, Echo Valley is currently underway. Further information can be found at http://www.nodghosh.com/about/
Sandra Arnold is an award-winning writer who lives in New Zealand. She has a PhD in Creative Writing from Central Queensland University, Australia and is the author of three books. Her flash fiction appears in numerous international journals and anthologies and is forthcoming in Bonsai: The Big Book of Small Stories (Canterbury University Press, NZ, 2018). She was nominated for the 2018 Pushcart Prize and the 2017 and 2018 Best Small Fictions. Her third novel Ash will be published by Mākaro Press (NZ) in 2019 and her first flash fiction collection Soul Etchings will be published by Retreat West Books (UK) in 2019. She is on the advisory board and a guest editor for Meniscus: the journal of the Australasian Association of Writing Programmes. www.sandraarnold.co.nz
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